The Impact of Institutional Structures and Power on Law and Society: Is It Time for Reawakening?

By Brockman, Joan | Law & Society Review, June 2003 | Go to article overview

The Impact of Institutional Structures and Power on Law and Society: Is It Time for Reawakening?


Brockman, Joan, Law & Society Review


Lynn Mather as President of the Law and Society Association: A Canadian Perspective

I was very pleased to see Mather address the issue of assumptions of universality that might exist in the Law and Society Association (LSA), especially as she notes the "unusual year" of planning a joint meeting with the Canadian Law and Society Association (CLSA). Many of us can tell stories (some rather amusing) about assumptions of universality by citizens of the United States.1 Some of us have experienced it by sending articles to the Law & Society Review.2 But what I would like to focus on is Mather's role in reaching out to the CLSA.

I have to confess I was initially a bit dubious about the proposed joint meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia.3 Many of my doubts were erased when Mather drove up to Quebec City in May 2001, during our annual conference, to meet with members of the CLSA regarding the planning of the 2002 conference. Despite the fact that her organization was seven to eight times larger than ours and had an office with staff (unlike the CLSA), she started from the assumption that we were on equal footing. Mather and Lou Knafla, the president of the CLSA, appointed a 16-member program committee, with six academics from the United States, five from Canada, one from each of South Korea, Japan, and Australia.4 Valerie Hans and I were asked to act as program chairs.

Mather also had the foresight to realize that we might work better as a group if we actually met face-to-face. She raised funds from the John Sloan Dickey Center to bring us together at the Minary Center in New Hampshire. Due to the terrorist events of September 11, our September 14-15 meeting had to be cancelled. Undeterred, Mather (with the assistance of Rod MacDonald and Jean-Francois Gaudreault-DesBiens, two committee members from McGill) arranged for us to meet in Montreal in mid-October. Not only did we receive John Sloan Dickey's quotation about "ill-founded premises" in advance of the meeting (see Mather 2003:263 for the quotation), but Mather read it to us again in her opening comments at our planning meeting.

Above all, Mather is a good listener, and her disarming manner and charm won us over. She has gone a long way in taking the United States out of the LSA.5 On a personal level, Mather's ability to reach out to Canadians and others was unprecedented and very much appreciated.

The Impact of Institutional Structures and Power on Law and Society

I was intrigued by Mather's reference to the article by Campbell and Wiles (1976) that describes law and society in Britain as bifurcating into the "sociology of law" and "sociolegal studies," whereas the phrases are "indistinguishable to most Americans" (Mather 2003:272), and her discussion of the creation of LSA as a response to a wider political environment as well as an academic one (as discussed by Garth & Sterling 1998). It led me to reflect on the nature of law and society research and teaching issues, and whether there are sufficient changes in societies today to anticipate another shift in focus.

Campbell and Wiles distinguish between sociolegal studies, which has been "denigrated [by the sociology of law] as antitheoretical, concerned with social engineering through the existing legal order, and not with explaining the order or transcending it by critique," and the sociology of law, which has been "chastized [by sociolegal studies] as abstract theoreticians, whose speculations were divorced from reality and lacked practical relevance" (1976:549). Sociolegal studies has accepted the legal order as unproblematic and worked to improve it (handmaidens of the law and social order), whereas the sociology of law has questioned the nature of social (including legal) order and tried to understand how laws have emerged-both the official and unofficial versions (1976:553-54).

One year earlier, Cain expressed concern that the sociology of law might separate too early from its sociological roots (as British criminology had done) and lose some of its ideas and theory, "which alone could give it coherence and direction" (1975:61). …

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